The most common complaint of an indie filmmaker is money.
And to be sure, sometimes you can’t do without it. Historical epics, soaring space operas, massive scale thrillers – these genres, by their very nature, are never cheap. But many indie filmmakers are not trying to make the next El Cid or Star Wars. For them, budget remains debilitating. This idea that low budget films are necessarily inferior, and simply launch-pads for more expensive fare is poorly founded. This attitude limits the quality of your output by delineating a yet-unmade film as lesser before the cameras are rolling. The idea that low, or indeed, no-budget films cannot be great is, however, a misconception.
With an estimated budget of $275, Meshes of the Afternoon is widely considered one of the most influential films ever made. Directed by and starring Maya Deren and her husband Alexander Hammid (from a script by the former) the film was shot in their home in California. It was released in 1943, the same year as Hitchcock classic Shadow of a Doubt and the bombastic British masterwork The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp. But it is most unlike either of these films.
“A combination of David Lynch’s twisted surrealism and John Cassavetes’ handheld lenswork”
Instead, it seems like a sign from the future. Watching it, Meshes of the Afternoon resembles a combination of David Lynch’s twisted surrealism and John Cassavetes’ handheld lenswork. Indeed, it is commonly known as the film that kickstarted the American avant-garde, and its residual impact can be seen across the cinematic spectrum since. Some elements have been cribbed directly. The symbolic key at the film’s centre is quoted directly in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, as an example.
It is fascinating to watch, especially as a filmmaker. A simple mirror is used in such a way as to become ghostly, oneiric, chilling. Deren’s talent as a dancer met with innovative (but simple) camera movement creates a sense of mobility and instability in the frame. The lack of sound does not seem antiquated – this is not a silent film of old. Even now, it feels fresh and urgent. There is nothing in this film that is beyond the means of an aspiring filmmaker today. No expensive gear, no towering sets, no big stars.
“A simple mirror is used in such a way as to become ghostly, oneiric, chilling”
The importance of this for a filmmaker is twofold. Firstly, it is evidence that a film made from what is spare change in filmmaking terms can be more than formative or limited. Indeed, one would be pressed thinking how any money could improve Meshes in the Afternoon. It is – and I use the word sparingly – perfect in itself. An artistic statement that does not seem lacking in any way, just as a grand Scorsese production might too seem complete. It isn’t a building block, nor is it treated as one. That isn’t to say ‘practice films’ should be cast aside. Rather that low budget is not equivalent to low value, even in the highest of artistic circles.
Second is how to use the spare change. Meshes of the Afternoon may be cheap, but like the best films of any budget, it is clever. Deren and Hammid take advantage of their environment, of their individual skills, of everyday objects. In essence, they are working to their strengths. This is something of a necessity with low budget filmmaking. As such, burgeoning filmmakers should consider what they are skilled at, and build their films to take advantage of these skills. So in watching Meshes of the Afternoon (and I would urge all to take 15 minutes and do so), think of it as two things. First, a great film. But second, evidence that all the tools to make one are in your possession. The rest is down to you.
Maya Deren isn’t the only director to thrive on a low budget – click here to explore.